CHITRE, Panama — A crucial new phase of the U.S. military occupation here has left the western half of this country in the hands of about 600 Green Berets, whose specially trained units face what could be a protracted struggle as they seek to prop up fragile civilian institutions while guarding against the emergence of a guerrilla resistance.
The elite troops, who bring a deliberately low profile to a region that only last week was patrolled by more than 2,000 heavily armed infantrymen, say they have been told to plan to remain in the countryside for as long as six months.
Their challenge, in what U.S. officials acknowledge will be the most time-consuming task of the occupation, is made more difficult by the fact that there has been no wholesale housecleaning of the Panama Defense Forces in the interior. Here, forces that once controlled rural districts like fiefdoms continue to instill wariness among citizens in provincial capitals such as this one.
An otherwise celebratory community gathering here over the weekend had undercurrents of tension while the traditional accordion-led band played a newly popular local tune urging los gringos to stay in Chitre.
The high school headmaster installed by the United States as both the civilian and military governor told a visitor that the old days of PDF dominance are over. As he said, "I am in charge, I tell the major what to do," a group of sunglasses-wearing Panamanian soldiers sat glowering in ostracism at a corner table.
"These provinces are in for a hard transition now," said Army Maj. Dreher Kinney, second in command of the Green Beret mission, in an interview at the Panamanian military base in Rio Hato that now serves as the U.S. base of operations in the west.
"There are an awful lot of dissatisfied people running around with guns out there," Kinney said. "Anytime you give someone a level of importance and then take it away," he added, "there's the potential for trouble."
The lingering wariness comes on the heels of a virtually bloodless initial U.S. intervention in this expansive section of the country, which stretches from the Panama Canal to the Costa Rican border.
Outside of Rio Hato, the site of a major battle, Panamanian garrisons almost without exception surrendered in place as helicopter-borne U.S. infantrymen arrived to take control in the days after the invasion.
While the most notorious of the Noriega-appointed PDF commanders were jailed, nearly all of their subordinates were kept in place. And that has left a troublesome legacy as the U.S. soldiers across the region seek to complete their effort to subordinate the Panamanian military to a new civilian government.
This city of more than 70,000 remains without even a provisional mayor in what Army Col. Lin Burney, the commander of the initial occupation force in the interior, described as one of the most striking examples of apathy among Panamanians wary about moving too quickly to take power from the former military bosses.
And even the envoy dispatched to Chitre by the new government of President Guillermo Endara conceded in an interview that there are probably many Noriega loyalists and former members of the fallen dictator's paramilitary Dignity Battalions still active in this province and in others where the post-invasion process of ferreting out such potential threats was far less extensive than in Panama City.
"There is still doubt and reserve," said Julio Aizpurua, a 28-year-old who worked as an adviser to Ricardo Arias Calderon before being sent to Herrera province by Arias, the nation's new first vice president. "We can't be sure what will happen."
In this charged environment, the eight-man Green Beret unit assigned full time to the province serves as a buffer between the emerging civilian institutions and the newly incarnated Panamanian Public Force, many of whose members continue to wear their old Panama Defense Forces combat fatigues and draw blank stares from civilians as they patrol downtown streets.
But the Green Berets, whose expertise is in counterinsurgency warfare, serve also as the principal U.S. instrument for combatting any resistance movement that might be organized from among Noriega loyalists who are still reported by area residents to be roaming in small, scattered groups in the remote mountains and jungles.
Although three weeks of patrols have yet to encounter any signs of resistance, Army commanders said that the large numbers of weapons still believed to be hidden around the country, together with the scores of former PDF and Dignity Battalion members still unaccounted for, make it possible that a well-armed insurgency could at some point emerge.
"It's too early in the game to tell how all the cards are going to fall," said Kinney, the Green Beret major.
"We don't have a true picture of what's out there as far as what could pose a threat," added Capt. Anthony Durant, who heads a unit based in Penonome, another provincial capital.